“Should Nintendo Go Mobile?” Isn’t a Big Enough Question (Part 1 of 2)
CEOs make decisions every day that change the lives of their employees and their consumers. Some of those decisions are great (Shin Megami Tensei X Fire Emblem? Shut up and take ALL OF MY MONEY), some of those decisions are outright wrong (sorry, Virtual Boy), and then some are just a little…mystifying. Today, I play side-seat driver and tackle a question that many people have been asking about the Big N: Should Nintendo Go Mobile?
Let’s start by setting a few givens that you may or may not disagree with:
- Nintendo is dominating the handheld market. Separate from the cellphone/tablet arena, Nintendo has no real competitor in the dedicated gaming handheld sphere. The Playstation Vita is a stellar system with tons of potential, but it doesn’t hold a candle to the market share that Nintendo’s 3DS has globally.
- Mobile gaming IS a real platform. I’m pretty sure that I was one of the people a few years ago talking about how cell phone and iPod games would never rival handhelds…then I played Infinity Blade and promptly gobbled my humble pie in a corner. Games like Angry Birds, Candy Crush Saga, and others have transformed not only gaming as a whole, but the way that companies have to look at monetizing their games.
- Nintendo established many intellectual properties, but exclusivity on Nintendo hardware makes those consoles special. Franchises like Mario, Zelda, and Metroid highlight the strengths of Nintendo hardware, whether using touch-screen controls on the 3DS or utilizing motion controls on the Wii. There are probably many folks out there who chiefly own Nintendo hardware because of the first-party titles available on those consoles.
- Nintendo isn’t doing so hot right now. Regardless of strong IPs and control of the handheld market, there’s tons of money out in the gaming sphere that Nintendo basically can’t touch in the free-to-play and mobile marketplace. Though stockholders aren’t fortunetellers, Nintendo’s stock has dropped almost 30% since its high on January 10, leading to articles like this one. Many gamers are losing confidence in the company, and huge gaps between first-party releases aren’t helping.
People keep asking the question “Should Nintendo Go Mobile?” But that’s a pretty broad question, all things considered. What does that really mean? Should Nintendo make games for iOS and Android? Should they abandon their current handheld development? Should they pack it all up and become a third-party publisher for other people’s platforms? Let’s look at some other established console-based companies and how they’ve approached these types of situations:
- Sega…oh, Sega. In the wake of the Sonic Boom scarf-related trolling and boo-hooing, one would think that they must be doing horribly. But even after the Dreamcast officially was deemed a “failed system” and Sega bowed out of the console wars, they continued to make games and remain relevant in the industry by re-releasing retro titles (I heart you always and forever, Jet Grind Radio) and expanding established franchises. They’ve even released a couple of cult classics like MadWorld and its spiritual sequel, Anarchy Reigns. And, as far as the Blue Blur is concerned, Sonic Colors and Sonic Chronicles: The Dark Brotherhood were experiments that actually didn’t turn out half-bad…they were no Sonic 2, but they were still good.
- Halo: Spartan Assault dropped on Windows 8 devices before the Xbox One (or, as I like to call it, the “BOne”). A dual-stick shooter based on the Halo universe, it didn’t seem to make any sort of real splash or lasting impression on the market. If Microsoft was looking for the title that was going to finally bridge the gap between the cell phone/tablet and the console, Spartan Assault wasn’t it.
- Let’s not forget the buzzphrase of E3 2013: “companion app.” Watch_Dogs, The Division, Project Spark, Battlefield 4, and more advertised tie-ins for the cell phone that would allow players to stay engaged with the game even when they were away from the main game itself. Let’s also not forget about games like Injustice: Gods Among Us, which cross experience and progress between the mobile and console versions of the game. Some of these tie-ins seemed interesting, and many of the companion app-featured games aren’t out yet, but I’m not convinced that pulling a bit of extra experience on the bus is going to convince me to hurl myself headlong into a franchise (feel free to battle this idea in the comments).
Oh, and let me toss this one in for fun:
- The games breaking records for revenue and success on mobile platforms are generally created by dedicated mobile developers (King? Mobage? And ChAIR is an arm of Epic Games focused on mobile) or indie developers (curse you, Flappy Bird). Does this rule out the idea that a Mario game on a phone would sell? Does this mean that the very second Pokémon appeared on the App Store or Google Play virtual copies wouldn’t fly off of the virtual shelves? Certainly not. But there’s likely a good reason Nintendo hasn’t stepped up to those plates yet even with the masses of people waiting, Fry-like, to hurl cash at them in exchange for mobile Pokébattles.
I talked with a friend of mine today about how I’d been assigned to write on this topic, and he talked about the idea of playing the “armchair CEO;” that many of us love to make recommendations about what a company should or shouldn’t do based on what “makes sense” as if it’s so simple, but really, it’s never that simple. And I agree with that; Nintendo and its execs made the choices they’ve made so far with a team of strategists and years of experience under their belt that I can only dream about. But I can say this much: nothing excites me about their upcoming Wii U peripheral, the Vitality Sensor. My 3DS got shoved to the side once I realized I could play my Vita’s sound through my external Bluetooth speaker in my room. And my Wii U is currently sitting on top of my PS4, completely unhooked, basically as a stand for my PS3, Xbox 360, and Gamecube sitting on top of them. If the Wii U weren’t in the stack, it wouldn’t change a thing…except the tower would be shorter, and a little more stable.
Don’t take this as complete hatred, because I love my Nintendo games. The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds was one of the best games I’ve played on a handheld in a long time. I’m still waiting with bated breath for the new Super Smash Bros. And, let’s not forget about Shin Megami Tensei X Fire Emblem (which I talked about already, but I don’t care because it’s going to be glorious). Still, I get the feeling that I’m not the only gamer with lackluster feelings towards Nintendo right now.
With performance powerhouses like the PS4 and the Xbox One out there to bypass the performance of the Wii U, and PC gaming (my new love) growing by leaps and bounds, Nintendo’s not in a great place to even keep what hold it has on the game industry. To me, Nintendo games feel more like a novelty than an experience now; maybe that’s because I’m growing older, but I’m pretty sure it’s because they simply don’t hold the same weight they used to against new IPs and indie development. I don’t know how many hours I’ve pumped into roguelikes like Risk of Rain and Rogue Legacy lately, but I know that I’ve felt more excitement and curiosity playing those $10-20 PC titles than I did playing New Super Mario Bros. U at three times the price. Even though NSMBU was polished, well-designed, and lively, it felt…well, it felt stereotypically Mario. Too stereotypically Mario. And that was enough to make me look the other way from Super Mario 3D World, a game which I’ve heard fantastic things about, but can’t convince myself to buy and dig out the Wiimotes to tackle.
When I look at a question on the internet like “Should Nintendo Go Mobile?,” I see us trying to put a bandage on the gushing wound that is Nintendo’s place as one of the Big Three to save Mario, the Year of Luigi, Peach, and the castle that she’s in (as well as all the other ones we thought she’d be in). And if this were a story about Nintendo having a great console experience and a weak handheld, maybe mobile would be the simple answer. But I don’t think we could get further from the truth: As Satoru Iwata noted when he took a pay cut for the system’s flop, this is a Wii U problem. Simply jumping into the mobile game won’t solve that.
Maybe mobile is part of the solution, but it would definitely only be part of the solution. Check out “Should Nintendo Go Mobile? Answers to Nintendo’s Questions” for my wrap-up on how Nintendo can re-establish itself in the gaming sphere.